- Education and Science
Fear of Public Speaking
A song about a performer who is ready to give up
Why does Public Speaking Make us Nervous?
Every once in a while, when I am up in front of a class doing my thing, a little voice goes off in my head: “What are you doing? You are standing up in front of all of these people talking for hours on end, and it doesn’t even faze you. How the hell did someone like you end up doing this for a living?” This voice creeps up less often as time passes, but it never goes away entirely. You see, anyone who knew me growing up (including myself) would be surprised to find that I ended up public speaking for a living. I was a generally quiet, introverted kid, and the only time that I talked very much was with family or friends that I knew pretty well. I even went through a phase during high school where I became a bit of a recluse, afraid of interacting with other people. Needless to say, I was never doing much of anything growing up that would qualify as performing in front of groups. My natural inclination is still to avoid large groups, keep somewhat to myself, and to interact with people I know well either individually or in small numbers. (I’m sure that this information would surprise my current students. They must sometimes wonder if I will ever shut up.)
Yet while I am rarely if ever nervous in front of a classroom any more, I still get somewhat scared if I find myself speaking publicly in some other setting. Of course, this is not an unusual feeling. I have heard it said several times over the years that when people are given surveys regarding their greatest fears, public speaking always comes up near the top of the list. For many people, public speaking scares them more than death. So why does public speaking scare so many of us?
As anyone who has ever read my hubs knows, I could probably ramble and speculate for a while about this topic. In this case, however, I will only speak for myself, a person for whom this issue is pretty simple. The basic fear that I have when public speaking in a non-classroom setting is that I will make an ass of myself. I am afraid that I will be incoherent, at a loss for words, or – the ultimate nightmare – the audience will find me boring. People will then judge me negatively and assume that I am a person who lacks intelligence and has little of interest to say. If I were a more noble being, then I would be focused on how my words might benefit the audience. Truth be told, however, my main concern is undoubtedly how I will look to them. The only time that I can truly say that I am thinking primarily about the audience is when I am teaching. Because I am so comfortable and confident in the classroom setting, I am somewhat able to look beyond myself and think about others.
Countless times in my life, I have found myself in an audience, watching an individual or a group of people bomb, and feeling a combination of pain and nervousness. Part of this may be empathy. I seem to automatically and instinctively feel bad for people when they are making a fool of themselves. My temptation then is to pat myself on the back for being such a caring, emotional person. The only problem is that I don’t think that my empathy is rooted purely in compassion. The truth instead is that I am actually embarrassed for myself. As I sit in the audience watching a lousy performance, I wonder if others watching also realize how bad this is. Then, on some level, I wonder if they think that I am an idiot because I am sitting there watching this dreadful performance without realizing how much it sucks. So even during those rare moments when I seem to feel compassion very naturally, there is a tinge of selfishness and a fear of making a fool of myself.
I have a tremendous respect for people who are willing to put themselves out there and perform in some public arena, with my deepest respect reserved for stand-up comics. I try to incorporate humor into my classes, and I have had many students over the years tell me that I should do stand-up comedy. I have actually performed a few skits in different setting over the years, but that is as far as I am willing to go. Being a funny teacher is a very different thing from being a funny comedian. If a teacher is remotely funny, students will laugh because they are pleasantly surprised. Comedians, however, are expected to make people laugh, and the audience has possibly paid good money to be entertained. Plus, comedians must generate material out of thin air and make everything a joke. As a teacher, I will sometimes make jokes in the course of covering historical material, and the audience doesn’t expect all of it to be funny.
There is also nothing more painful to an audience than bad stand-up comedy. Personally, I don’t want to find out what it’s like to be up there with a microphone in front of a heckling or, even worse, a quiet audience. There is nowhere to hide. (Of course, comedians will also tell you that a laughing audience creates the greatest high in the world.) So the next time that you are watching a bad stand-up comic (or teacher), try to tap in to that empathy somewhere deep inside you. Even if someone stinks, they deserve a certain amount of respect for just getting up there.